SCARBOROUGH — Amid what Chairman Ron Ahlquist called “active negotiations” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a fine against the town for the death of a protected bird, the Town Council on Wednesday night delayed a decision on whether to tighten restrictions on unleashed dogs at town beaches.
With Councilors Richard Sullivan and Katherine St. Clair opposed, the council voted 5-2 to take up the issue again at its Oct. 2 meeting.
But the postponement didn’t stop more than 20 people from expressing opinions about the proposal to prohibit beach-going dogs from running without leashes and only under “voice control.”
The speakers were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the change in the town’s Animal Control Ordinance.
Between June 15 and Sept. 15, the town now allows unleashed dogs on the beaches from sunrise to 9 a.m. daily. Dogs are banned entirely from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during those three months, and leashes are required after 5 p.m.
The proposed change would eliminate the early-morning exception, and would push up the start of the ban and leash requirement from June 15 to April 1.
The council began considering the proposal after an off-leash dog killed a piping plover chick on July 15 at Pine Point Beach. The incident prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to threaten the town with a $12,000 fine, claiming Scarborough had ignored repeated warnings that its ordinance did not sufficiently protect the plovers, an endangered bird species protected by federal law.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service is “over-reaching,” Brian Rayback told the council.
The town can’t be held liable for the bird’s death because the Environmental Species Act doesn’t require municipalities to take “affirmative action” to meet federal standards, said Rayback, an environmental lawyer with Portland firm Pierce Atwood.
“(The Fish and Wildlife Service) is trying to put their duty on you, and I think you should push back,” he said.
Grand Avenue resident Elaine Richer urged the council not to change the ordinance, but to have it better enforced and better communicated to the public. And she reminded councilors that “people and dogs are also inhabitants of the natural world, too.”
“How did we get to the point where the piping plover is king of the beach and the dog is public enemy No. 1?” she asked.
Some people spoke emotionally about letting their dogs run on the beaches, with one woman breaking into tears at the podium. Most speakers said the council should at least wait for better information before making any change to the ordinance.
“I object to a federal agency setting environmental policies that are not based on real data,” former Councilor Sue Foley-Ferguson said. “You do not have evidence before you that supports a stricter leash law.”
The council heeded the advice, deciding to wait until the ordinance could be considered along with any settlement of the federal fine. But councilors acknowledged the complexity of the issue and the need for compromise.
“This is a multi-dimensional issue. It’s not as simple as plovers,” Councilor Jessica Holbrook said at the end of the meeting. “Ultimately, no one’s going to be happy.”